Of all the thrilling baskets scored in NBA history, there have been few more fabled than the two Willis Reed hit in the opening minutes of Game 7 of the 1970 Finals. Although they counted for only four points on the scoreboard, they were worth a million buckets of inspiration in the hearts of the New York Knicks.
Prior to Game 7, on May 8, 1970, at 7:30 p.m., Reed, the captain and main force of a multi-talented New York Knicks team, was apparently sidelined with an injury that threatened his team’s chances to win the championship. Fifteen minutes later he had become a legend, and the Knicks were on the way to their first title.
In the first four games of The Finals against the formidable Los Angeles Lakers, Reed had scored 37, 29, 38 and 23 points, respectively, while averaging 15 rebounds. In the fourth quarter of Game 5 he sustained a deep thigh injury. The Knicks managed to survive that encounter but were demolished by the Lakers in Game 6.
The series was tied at three games apiece entering the decisive contest at Madison Square Garden. New York’s Bill Bradley recalled Game 7 in an article in The New York Times: “We left the locker room for the warmups not knowing if Willis was going to come out or not.”
At 7:34 p.m. Reed limped onto the court. The crowd went wild, and his teammates’ confidence returned with a vengeance. Reed somehow managed to out-jump Wilt Chamberlain on the opening tip, then scored the game’s first basket on a shot from the top of the key. He then scored a second basket from 20 feet out. He did not score again, but he didn’t have to; he had already inspired the Knicks to seize the day. New York led by as many as 29 points in the first half and eventually won the contest 113-99.
Reed was the heart, soul and backbone of the Knicks’ 1970 and 1973 championship teams.
The 6-foot-9½, 240-pound former Grambling Tiger played 10 seasons in New York and appeared in seven All-Star Games. He was Rookie of the Year in 1964-65 and MVP in 1969-70. He was selected Finals MVP both years the Knicks wore the crown.
Reed was born on June 25, 1942, in Hico, La., a place so tiny that he once told Pro Basketball Illustrated, “They don’t even have a population.” While Reed was growing up on a farm in nearby Bernice, the Knicks were floundering. New York managed only one winning season in the 12 campaigns between 1955-56 and 1966-67. From 1956 to 1966 the Knicks finished last nine times, and the club failed to make the playoffs in the seven seasons from 1959 to 1966. In 1963-64 the Knicks brought up the rear of the Eastern Division with a 22-58 record.
At Grambling, Reed amassed 2,280 career points, averaged 26.6 points and 21.3 rebounds during his senior year, and led the school to one NAIA title and three Southwestern Athletic Conference championships. Selected by the Knicks in the second round of the 1964 Draft, he signed with the franchise for about $10,000.
Reed made an immediate impact. In March 1965 he scored 46 points against Los Angeles, the second-highest single-game total ever by a Knicks rookie. For the season, he ranked seventh in the NBA in scoring (19.5 ppg) and fifth in rebounding (14.7 rpg). He also began his string of All-Star appearances, and he was the first Knicks player ever to be named Rookie of the Year.
Reed proved to be a clutch playoff performer throughout his career. He gave an early indication of this in 1966-67 when he bettered his regular-season average of 20.9 points per game by scoring 27.5 points per contest in the postseason.
The team continued to struggle for a few years while adding good players through trades and the draft. Perhaps the most important personnel move was the decision to replace Dick McGuire as coach with William “Red” Holzman midway through the 1967-68 season. The Knicks had gone 15-22 under McGuire; Holzman steered them to a 28-17 finish. New York’s 43-39 record gave the team its first winning season since 1958-59.
Reed continued to make annual appearances in the All-Star Game. By this time he was playing power forward instead of center in order to make room for Walt Bellamy. Reed continued to work hard on the boards, averaging 11.6 rebounds in 1965-66 and 14.6 in 1966-67, both top 10 marks in the league. By the latter season he had adjusted to the nuances of his new position, averaging 20.9 points to rank eighth in the NBA.
New York won 54 games in 1968-69 after staggering to a 6-10 start. On Dec. 19, the Knicks traded Bellamy and Howard Komives to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Dave DeBusschere. The trade was good for Reed in two ways. First, DeBusschere assumed some of the heavy labor inside, thereby taking some of the pressure off Reed. But second and more importantly, DeBusschere was a legitimate forward, which meant that Reed could move back to the pivot position, where he was more comfortable and effective. “Since that trade, I feel like a new person,” Reed said at the time. “Center is my position.”
In a game played the day after the trade it was obvious which team had made out best in the exchange. The Knicks pounded the Pistons 135-87; the 48-point margin of victory was the Knicks’ largest ever. From Dec. 17 through Jan. 4 New York sailed off on a 10-game winning streak, then had another 11-game streak from Jan. 25 through Feb. 15.
The Knicks stressed defense, holding opponents to a league-low 105.2 points per game in 1968-69. With Reed clogging the middle and Walt Frazier pressuring the ball, the Knicks would be the best defensive club in the league for five of the next six seasons. Reed scored 21.1 ppg in 1968-69 and grabbed a franchise-record 1,191 rebounds, an average of 14.5 rpg.
In 1969-70, the Knicks jumped out to a 14-1 start and went on to win 60 regular-season games for the first time in franchise history. New York’s victories included a then-record 18-game winning streak. Reed, who took home MVP honors at the 1970 All-Star Game, averaged 21.7 points during the season, his highest season mark ever. But his most remarkable statistical characteristic was his steadiness: from 1966-67 to 1970-71, Reed notched averages of 20.9, 20.8, 21.1, 21.7, and 20.9 points per game, respectively.
In the 1970 playoffs, New York defeated the Baltimore Bullets in seven games and bounced the Milwaukee Bucks in five to advance to a dramatic Finals matchup with a Los Angeles team led by Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Chamberlain. Both Game 3 and Game 4 went into overtime, with each team winning one contest. Reed, whose magic in the legendary Game 7 led the Knicks to the title, swept the regular season, All-Star and Finals MVP awards. He and teammate Frazier were selected to the All-NBA First Team, the first Knicks players to earn that honor since Harry Gallatin in 1953-54.
The left-handed Reed presented a problem for opposing defenders. He had the bulk and the touch to play inside, but he was also deadly with his soft jump shot from up to 15 feet away. When he didn’t possess the ball he was effective at setting picks to free up teammates, an essential element of the Knicks’ perpetual motion offense.
The Knicks’ trademark was teamwork, and each player knew his role. Frazier was a reliable playmaker and defender; DeBusschere excelled as a rebounder; Bradley was a tireless and intelligent runner; and Dick Barnett distinguished himself as a jump shooter. Reed, Frazier, DeBusschere, and Bradley all ended up in the Hall of Fame.
The Knicks slipped to 52-30 in the 1970-71 season, still good enough for first place in the Atlantic Division. In mid-season, Reed tied Harry Gallatin’s all-time club record by hauling in 33 rebounds against the Cincinnati Royals. Once again Reed started in the All-Star Game. For the season he averaged 20.9 points and 13.7 rebounds, but the Knicks were eliminated by Baltimore in the Eastern Conference finals. In 1971-72 Reed was bothered by tendinitis in his left knee, limiting his mobility. He missed two weeks early in the season and returned, but shortly thereafter the injured knee prohibited him from playing and he totaled only 11 games for the year.
The 1972-73 Knicks finished the season with a 57-25 record and went on to win another championship. Reed was less of a contributor than he had been two seasons earlier. In 69 regular-season games he averaged only 11.0 points. In the playoffs the Knicks beat Baltimore and the Boston Celtics and once more faced the Lakers in The Finals. After losing the first game the Knicks captured four straight, claiming their second championship with a 102-93 victory in Game 5. Reed led a well-balanced team and was named Finals MVP.
Reed played 19 games in 1973-74 before retiring. In his 10 years with New York he had earned a place in the Knicks’ top 10 in nearly every category, and he was among the top three in minutes played (23,073), field goals made (4,859), rebounds (8,414) and total points (12,183). In 1976, Reed became the first Knicks player to have his uniform number retired.
The Knicks’ dynasty broke up over the next few years. Reed took over as coach for the 1977-78 season and managed to coax a 43-39 record out of the squad. However, he was removed as coach only 14 games into the following season.
Reed served as an assistant coach at St. John’s, then as head coach at Creighton University from 1981-82 to 1984-85. While at Creighton he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1981. Also at Creighton, Reed coached 7-foot Benoit Benjamin, who later played on several NBA teams and was ultimately reunited with Reed in the New Jersey Nets organization in 1993.
Reed joined the Atlanta Hawks as an assistant coach in 1985, then filled the same role with the Sacramento Kings. On Feb. 29, 1988, he replaced interim New Jersey Nets coach Bob MacKinnon and guided a hapless 1987-88 Nets team to a 7-21 finish, completing a disastrous 19-63 season. The following year Reed coached the Nets to an improved 26-56 record before moving to the front office.
In 1993, Reed became the Nets’ general manager. By 1994 he had built the Nets into a perennial playoff contender. By drafting Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson, Reed brought in two franchise players who defined the Nets of the early 1990s. Reed also staged a minor coup when he lured Chuck Daly to coach the team for 1992-93 and 1993-94. After a four-year absence from the postseason, New Jersey had made three consecutive playoff appearances by 1994. In 1996, Reed moved to the position of Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations, with the same focus of building the Nets into a championship contender.
After working with the Nets for over 15 years, Reed crossed the river to join the Knicks’ front office during the offseason before the 2003-04 campaign. The move returned him to the roots of his professional playing days.
The words that describe Reed’s playing career may sound like a quaint cliche, but they are appropriate: Endurance, pride, dignity, obligation, hard work and courage. For a decade he applied those qualities day in and day out on the basketball court, but they were distilled into a couple of dramatic minutes at the start of Game 7 of the 1970 Finals. Two decades after that legendary night Reed recalled, “There isn’t a day in my life that people don’t remind me of that game.”